We've all heard the phrase "the banality of evil." Some of us even know which political theorist to attribute it to, and among those, a few have even read it in context. Hannah Arendt most memorably employed it in both the subtitle and closing words of Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, her book on the trial of Nazi lieutenant-colonel Adolf Eichmann. To Arendt's mind, Eichmann willingly did his part to organize the Holocaust — and an instrumental part it was — out of neither anti-semitism nor pure malice, but out of a non-ideological, entirely more prosaic combination of careerism and obedience. Readers have argued ever since its publication about this characterization, and those with a special interest in how Arendt arrived there can find in the New Yorker's online archives the original series of "Eichmann in Jerusalem" articles out of which the book grew: part one, part two, part three, part four, and part five. (Click on the images at the bottom of each page to see Arendt's writing up close. Then click on them again and maneuver your mouse around to peruse the pages.) Given that Hannah Arendt, a new biopic starring Barbara Sukowa, just gained distribution, you may want to read these articles to stay ahead of the next wave of interest in the thinker and her writings.
In today's magazines, one reads rather fewer five-part intersections of trial reportage and moral inquiry by figures like Arendt. But the New Yorker hasn't entirely lost its willingness to confront these matters. Shortly after last year's massacre in Aurora, Colorado, the magazine ran on its site a piece by Rollo Romig in touch with concerns, broadly speaking, similar to Arendt's. Romig, too, looks at the nature of evil, but in a reflection suited to our time — brief, startlingly timely, and specifically for the web — rather than Eichmann in Jerusalem's. "The danger of a word like 'evil' is that it is absolute," he writes. "'Evil' has become the word we apply to perpetrators who we’re both unable and unwilling to do anything to repair, and for whom all of our mechanisms of justice seem unequal: it describes the limits of what malevolence we’re able to bear. In the end, it’s a word that says more about the helplessness of the accuser than it does the transgressor."
H/T to Christian F. for flagging the New Yorker articles for us.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.